Restoring Soil Nutrients

Here are twelve critical soil nutrients your plants need for healthy growth and how to supply them.

| June/July 1994

  • 144 soil nutrients - woman with shovel
    Your garden will thrive with the right balance of soil nutrients. 
  • 144 soil nutrients - nitrogen deficiency
    Extreme nitrogen deficiency results in stunted corn ears.
  • 144 soil nutrients - beet leaves2
    Manganese-deficient beet leaf on left, normal leaf on right.
  • 144 soil nutrients - cornfield
    Excessive weed competition—as exhibited in this cornfield—and drought are possible sources of nitrogen deficiency.
  • 144 soil nutrients - calcium deficiency
    Calcium deficiency, taking the form of blossom-end rot, in mature pepper fruits.

  • 144 soil nutrients - woman with shovel
  • 144 soil nutrients - nitrogen deficiency
  • 144 soil nutrients - beet leaves2
  • 144 soil nutrients - cornfield
  • 144 soil nutrients - calcium deficiency

Summer puts soil fertility to the test. Intensive plantings of warm-weather crops remove nutrients at a fast clip, and when plants hunger, you should be the first to know it's feeding time. Replacing soil nutrients keeps plants happy right up to the harvest.

I keep a watchful eye on plants when the weather becomes hot. Anything less than vigorous, lush growth raises suspicion and when leaves become discolored or misshapen, I take action. A first step might be a general feeding by scratching leaf mold into the soil. Summer is a bit early for gathering leaf mold, but there's usually some available and it's loaded with earthworms that further enrich the soil. Then I gather all the compost I can spare, and encircle each plant with a few inches of mulch. Finally, I spray all leaf surfaces with a solution of fish emulsion and liquid seaweed. This general feeding often helps the plants through the summer, but if problems persist, I look for specific nutritional deficiencies.

The Big Six


Abundant nitrogen immediately comes to mind when thinking of fertile soil. It's the green giant your plants need for lush, sturdy growth. It forms plant proteins and it's probably the nutrient most familiar to gardeners. Nitrogen deficiencies cause leaves to lose their healthy, green color, and this chlorosis (yellowing) usually begins near the base of plants. As chlorosis works its way up, the plants appear weak and spindly.

Supplying soil and plants with nitrogen supplements presents no difficulties. Give plants a foliar feeding of fish emulsion and a root feeding of dried blood, rabbit manure, cottonseed meal, or a commercially prepared organic fertilizer for an immediate pick-me-up. Compost enriched with manures, tea and coffee grounds, feathers, garden wastes, and kitchen wastes makes an excellent long-term source of nitrogen.

Too much nitrogen is as bad as too little. The most obvious signs of excessive nitrogen include plants with weak, water-filled tissues and stems that break easily during windy conditions. Aphid infestation is another symptom. Studies show that these pesky insects prefer to feed on plants that receive excessive nitrogen.

11/26/2017 8:41:00 AM

I always have believed in the benefits of mulching/composting for healthy soils until I relocated to the deep south, Louisiana. I made my own soil in raised beds by mulching various native flora and immediately grew healthy vegetables. However, after few years of success and, therefore, attracting all sorts of insects also enjoying my crops, I was advised that the mulch afforded safety to all sorts of eating insects. BT works for slugs and caterpillars, but the arrival of voracious squash bugs leverages a whole new dimension. I have yet to find a reasonable solution.



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